Italy is a land of many and diverse interests; and occupying a unique place, geographically, historically, architecturally and pictorially, are the Hill Towns, those cities older than Rome, more picturesque than Florence, possessing a character and individuality that sets them apart from all other cities of Europe. While there are many things in common between these cities of the hills (those semi-mountains that range along the northern portion of central Italy) yet each possesses striking characteristics of its own. Perugia differs from Siena, and Assisi from both, but absolutely separate and utterly unlike all other towns not only of the Hills, but of earth, the one absolutely medieval thing in all Italy is San Gimi gnano. She is not of pre-Roman time like her neighbor Volterra-that was old when the grass grew on the seven hills and before the wolf was born that suckled Romulus-but still San Gimignano is old when measured by the things that are of today, for very early in the years that marked the wane of Roman power people came to live upon her hill and sheltered themselves behind her walls now fast crumbling to decay. As time went on she gathered her thousands of inhabitants from all over Italy and grew in power until she assumed to dispute with Florence and Siena for supremacy. And here today, in the empty shell of what was her greatness, is visualized to the present the history, not of Roman, but of medieval Italy. Here is written in her walls, her great civic building, and her curious towers the story of all Italian cities of the Middle Ages, but written more plainly, more simply, more legibly than in any other record of that past.
For certain temperaments the things that are gone possess an interest that even exceeds the fascination of the present. What were the men like who lived in the ages that are no more? How did they live, what did they talk about, what interested them, what motives impelled or restrained them, what were their pleasures, their griefs, their thoughts? What did they do, and how and why did they do it? These are among the most absorbing and entertaining questions that a man can set himself to answer, for they lead the mind back into the romance of strange things and along ways where flowed a different life than our own. It was the lure of these questions that took me to San Gimignano -that and the mere love of the picturesque that I knew abounded there among the old buildings.
Now I have a belief that environment is always an expression of life, and that therefore this medieval environment that here so perfectly persists, is an expression, an illustration, of the life that created it, just as electric lights and telephones express the needs and character of our Twentieth-Century existence. So that, if we can rightly interpret these existing signs and symbols, these cathedrals, castle walls and streets of a medieval city, then shall we come to a comprehension of the life that therein found its expression; come to a comprehension of what manner of men they were who found such surroundings suited to their needs. And San Gimignano, being a perfect survival of the past, ” a somber thought of the Middle Ages,” as Ilutton calls it, can, therefore, introduce us to the men of the past, if we can only come to understand the language spoken by its strange streets, its art and its traditions.
Right at the outset we are met by an apparent inconsistency, not local to San Gimignano, but which always confronts the student of medievalism. The art, the glass, the mosaic, the churches, speak of spirituality, of flesh restrained and soul aggrandized. But the strong towers, the barred windows, the prisons and the torture chambers speak of mere savages, of animals without thought of God or love of man. Pray what sort of a man was this who thus expressed himself in these conflicting ways, and wherein was he akin to us?
We differ from him at both extremes: the ages have wrought upon man a steady pressure of emotional suppression which we call development, so that in the Twentieth Century we can no more perpetrate the cruelties of the Twelfth, than we can endow our churches with that subtle impulse to spiritual exaltation which even the most insensate nature is conscious of when within a dim and vast cathedral. But what sort of a man was this ancestor of ours who could build both a cathedral and a rack? In the first place, all his sensations were keener, more vivid, because back of him were the Dark Ages of unrestraint. He loved more ardently, he hated more bitterly, he worshiped more intently. He was a creature of passion and, therefore, of impulse; to will was to do; to desire was to possess; to suffer wrong was to take revenge. But love, hate, lust, revenge and worship are all emotions, and our medieval man was, therefore, intensely emotional. Circumstances would combine to direct this emotionalism into other channels as well, but without diverting it from these manifestations already noted. Intense love of beauty is but a product of the emotional temperament, and even in our own generation sometimes goes hand in hand with those undesirable products of unrestrained impulse so often associated in the popular mind with the artistic temperament.
I cannot but feel the conviction that, after all, there is nothing inconsistent in the medieval character, and that we owe its beauties and its vices, its exaltation of spirit and its licensed lusts, to precisely one and the same fact, and that is that the man of the period was uniquely and tremendously emotional. He must have felt more deeply than we to build a cathedral of such exquisite beauty as could be in itself an inspiration to worship; he must have been more emotional than we are to fight a tournament for the love of a lady, or to encounter the perils and labors of the crusades to rescue the burial place of a dead Christ. This emotionalism accounts at one and the same time for all his traits, both good and bad, and by that accounting makes his inconsistency more apparent than real, for it is the common source of all his impulses. It rather seems to me that in his manifestations the only thing of today that approaches the medieval man, is a boy.
And San GimignanO explains the men who made it,-and makes alive their story. During the Middle Ages Italy differed from all the rest of Europe, not only because it never wholly lost the influence of Roman culture, law and custom, but, because of that influence, it was unaffected by the feudal system elsewhere developing. Rome was an Empire of cities. The rural community was a thing of no influence in government, and this condition continued in the peninsula after Rome’s power faded, so that the cities of Italy became independent States, or, at least, influences, looking to no protecting over-lord, as did the landowners of much of the rest of Europe, who held their lands by feudal tenure. Elsewhere the cities were usually merely a part of the nation, a part of the land, but in Italy they were apart from the land, for the Germanic races occupied an entirely different and much more considerate attitude toward the rural population than did the Roman.* Thus we find in this little hill town all the paraphernalia of a State, and all the conflicting ambitions and factions that go to disturb the peace of a State. Not only did it fight against other towns, but its rival families slaughtered each other in civil warfare. So we must think of San Gimignano in the Middle Ages, not as a city in the modern sense, but as an independent State, a nation.
Its emotional inhabitants expressed their medieval temperament in wonderful frescoed churches; in a town-house of unsurpassed beauty; in savage warfare against neighboring towns; in horrible tortures; in the utterly unprecedented towers of defense which protected every man’s home against his neighbor; in an unrestrained impulse to murder that neighbor when profitable and convenient; and, finally, in a religious fervor that beatified as the city’s patron saint the most morbidly emotional figure in Italian history, the child Saint Fina. The city’s power reached its zenith in the twelve and thirteen hundreds, when her aid was sought by the rival city-States of Florence and Siena. In 1300 Florence proposed an alliance, and sent Dante, who was a politician as well as a poet, as her Ambassador to San Gimignano to persuade its people to the compact. The town was a republic, after the manner, at least, of other Italian republics, and, after addressing the Council in the beautiful chamber of the city hall, as we would term the Palazzo del Commie, he stepped out upon the balcony, where the traveler is allowed to stand today, and so eloquently did he appeal to the people gathered in the square below, that his cause was won, and for many years thereafter San Gimignano followed the leadership of Florence. But these people of San Gimignano were a quarrelsome folk, and year after year, when not fighting under the banner of Florence, were fighting with each other. One night in 1352 the then Chief Magistrate had two youths, members of a rival family, arrested on a charge of conspiracy against the State, and soon, on a scaffold in the square, they poured out their blood. On the next moonless night the boys’ friends murdered the city’s executive and burned his palace to the ground. Of such was the strenuous life in San Gimignano in the days when she was great.
At this opportune moment of chaos Florence calmly annexed the town ” for the peace of the people,” and that was the end of the little Republic’s independent career.
It was in the turbulent years preceding the Florentine conquest that the city’s noble families built the strange fortresspalaces, that still linger on, asleep. As neighbor was so often at real war with neighbor, each palace became literally a fortress, and so arose these bleak stone towers, veritable strongholds against the enemy across the street. Some fifty of these towers marking the homes of that many noble families were built about this time, though now all but thirteen have been destroyed. Each patrician strove to build higher than his neighbor, until finally the city fathers built over the town-house a tower one hundred and sixty-seven feet high, which still stands, and higher than which no one was allowed to go.
But in another and more subtle way than in her embattled residences and hall of state San Gimignano brings an accurate picture of the past into the view of the present. Not only did Italy inherit traditions of Roman civic government, but she also remained, to a greater extent than she was conscious of, under the influence of the Pagan culture. Broadly put, Paganism was ever a creed of selfishness, and this selfishness medieval Italy grafted upon its Christianity, until St. Francis of Assisi struck it off, and thus arose those mystics, those hermits and anchorites, whose reputation for sanctity came not from good works, but from a morbid surrender to self; a sanctity whose aim was salvation for self through a complete withdrawal from contaminating humanity.
The most curious instance of this trait of the medieval temperament is found in the records of San Gimignano, and the fact that its influence still persists and still mentally dominates the town, illustrates the fact that here in San Gimignano we have a medieval survival in the midst of the Twentieth Century. This is the story of St. Fina. I am going to quote the version given by Edward Hutton in his Siena and Southern Tuscany, though a more fantastic account is offered by Maurice Hewlett in The Road in Tuscany.
” Fina de’ Ciardi was born in 1238 of a poor yet noble family of San Gimignano. Till she was ten years old she was the delight of her father’s house, bright as a ray of spring sunshine in the dark rooms there, beautiful as a flower fallen from the gardens of Paradise, happy as a little singing-bird at morning. But in 1248 she fell ill, one of the most dreadful diseases of the Middle Ages befell her, and, thinking she was the innocent victim of God’s anger on that tremendous century, she chose to lie on a plank of hard oak, refused a bed, and for five years offered herself to God in expiation of sins she could not name. Fearfully tormented by the devil, who appeared to her in his old form of a serpent, eight days before her death she was comforted by a vision of St. Gregory, who promised that on his feast day, 12 March, 1253, she should join him in Paradise. And it happened as he said. But when they would have buried her, they found her body so terribly mangled by disease that already the worms devoured it; and when they would have lifted her from her plank, they found that her flesh adhered to it, and that, indeed, her body had died before her soul had taken its de parture. Scarcely had she gone, when the devils, fearing doubtless her advocacy in heaven, ‘ filled the air with whirl-winds; but against them, moved by angel hands, the bells of San Gimignano rang out in sweet confidence, so that the whirl-winds were calmed and the storm stilled. And when the people came to the house of St. Fina they found it full of the most sweet fragrance as of Paradise itself, and lo, the room where the holy body lay was filled with flowers; and, marveling at this, they presently went away.’ ”
And the memory of this poor, morbid little girl yet dominates the life of San Gimignano, just as the strange, tall towers dominate the streets. And for these two reasons the town is a bit of visible medievalism injected into the present.
From the standpoint of the picturesque, as Clovelly is unique in England, so has San Gimignano a place apart among the towns of Italy; yes, more, for among all the cities of Europe none presents just such an extraordinary appearance. It lies about thirty miles north of Siena, and when, driving from the railroad station some seven miles away, the first view comes upon you, the sensation is one of utter astonishment that such a thing can be, an amazement that strengthens with nearer approach. It is a city so utterly different from all other cities that description is difficult; there is no common meeting-ground of expression, no vocabulary of comparison. It reminds you of nothing; it is one of the places of earth that are, by their strangeness, in a class by themselves.
The low ridge is lifted against the sky crowded with houses, and then, above those houses, are reared not spires, nor domes, nor taller palaces, nor anything the like of which you have ever seen before, but great, gaunt, unadorned square towers, each more than a hundred feet in height. And all is penned within the narrow circle of the venerable and now fast disappearing walls.
Perhaps alone among the towns of Europe San Gimignano is utterly without a modern quarter, a modern dwelling. Less than five thousand people now live among the strange buildings where ten times that number once had their homes. The railroad is miles away; no clattering tram blots the medieval picture. You drive un der a low gate and enter upon a dream. I know the fashion to speak of dream towns; I am not using the term in that way, but because the word most accurately defines the sensation that comes upon you as you pass within the place. The streets, the buildings, are so entirely outside the scope of experience, so at variance with the custom of men and cities that, seeking a parallel, you are forced back upon those visions of the dozy hours, when who has not wandered in a city impossible to find on earth! Well, this is the city of sleep, of dreams. The streets have that same gray, empty look; archways leap purposelessly across the road and add to the mystery and the wonderful effect of shine and shadow that I have never seen equaled elsewhere. And as these silent ways wind in and out, always above them rise those monstrous towers, like a living, menacing presence.
It might not be so with another, but as I walked alone, the silence, and the people only here and there, and the shadows, and the gates, and, most of all, the great towers that seemed to follow after, grew more and more a dream, and by and by there came that sense of fear that comes in dreams; and so to me San Gimignano will ever be the city of a dream.
The town today is pathetic. Poverty has come with age to the ” city of beautiful towers.” Year by year her population has dwindled, and her wealth decreased. Only one noble family remains in the city, and occupies the palace of its ancestors. But it has fallen on evil times, and now the descendant of generations of proud and titled men and women gives dancing lessons in the vast, half-empty palace of his fathers. Most of the other great houses are let out in apartments, and you can get a whole floor, with all its faded grandeur, for an absurdly small amount, f or rents are low in San Gimignano.
Little industry survives. There is the wine to be brought to market, and there are a few skilled artisans in wood, their little shops often found in the ground floor of a mansion whose ancient owners were makers of history. The young men go away, some forever, but more for the winter, coming back in the summer to the old home, which exercises its fascination upon them as it must on all who ever come within its strange charm. My guide, for instance, goes every winter to London, where he gets employment as a chauffeur and adds to his knowledge of English. The town is much too big for the small population that remains, and the resulting emptiness of the streets adds to the dreamlike atmosphere of the place.
In the market-place is a little bookstand where are displayed for the young Italian translations of the most lurid of the American dime novels of a generation ago. Texas Jack and The Pinkerton Spy are offered with flaming covers, and a choice assortment of others, illustrated with red and yellow pictures of Indians burning their captives at the stake, and other scenes from the supposed life of the American Great West. Unfortunately this is not unique in San Gimignano, as I saw these books everywhere in Europe, translated into every language, and displayed in the remotest and most inaccessible villages.
The life of today is rather barren of amusements, and with but a limited range of interests. Annually there is a great celebration of the birthday of St. Fina. It is the one great event of the year. The people dress themselves in medieval costume and parade around the crumbling walls; there are tableaux presenting scenes from her sad little life, and from all the neighboring villages the peasants flock to town to take part in the ceremonies, which end with mass in the cathedral. Aside from this there is little to break the monotony except the moving-picture show, which draws its crowds nightly. It is interesting to watch the audiences, for they so frankly express in their faces the passing emotion. Clearly they prefer the scenes of murder and revenge, while the humorous pictures excite but little attention.
No housewife does her laundry work at home. Far below the wall-crowned hill on which the city stands, and just outside the arch of a ruined gate, whence a path leads downward, is the public washing-place. Under, great arches in the hillside are dark pools, and here come the women carrying the weekly linen in baskets on their heads, and followed by their children, and here, with not a little song and laughter, they do their washing, with the children playing around them. These pools and arches, with the gate-blocked path, and the city towers above, form one of the most picturesque bits that can be found anywhere.
One evening, when the shadows of the towers lay deeper, and the dusk was coming on, out from the twilight -came at double-quick a procession of men covered with long black gowns, over their heads pointed hoods, and down across their faces black masks with narrow slits for eyes and mouth. Each man carried aloft a torch whose yellow flame blended strangely with the shadows. Behind them, drawn by four shrouded men, was a bier where, under a black pall, a dead man lay. Thus, at evening, do they bury their dead.
In the ancient days the citadel of San Gimignano was a stronghold that defied many attacks, but today it is only a homestead with a garden of tomatoes and sweetsmelling herbs growing within the ramparts. A boy opens the door and leads you along the garden paths to narrow steps, within what once were the castle walls, and when you climb them you find yourself upon the watch-tower, and all around the unobstructed circle of the far horizon, with those closely grouped towers of the city rising just before you, and the wide sweep of the sunlit valleys holding many towns within their hollows.
Wonderfully interesting are the city hall and the square in which it stands. The former has a quaint courtyard with a fountain and an outer stairway, which, set about with marbles and coats-of-arms, leads to an open loge, and thus to the council chamber. Not far from this square is the cathedral, a. plain basilica of the Twelfth Century, but within, its walls are absolutely covered from end to end with the most extraordinary series of frescoes, centuries old. On one side are scenes from the Old Testament, and on the other from the New. Much of the drawing is crude, and the treatment is astonishing in its naivete. Never shall I forget the scene where Noah had gone to sleep after drinking too much wine, nor the amazing mangling of the human form that is represented as marking the culminating row at the Tower of Babel after the confusion of tongues. Hell is portrayed most literally, and close by is a pictured heaven where naked men with whiskers sit on uncushioned golden seats, and twang harps forever and forever, while smiling over at their suffering brethren on the other wall.
Another marvelous series of frescoes of much greater artistic value than those in the cathedral, are on the walls of Sant’ Agostino. They portray the life of Saint Augustine. The first view shows Saint Augustine at school, and pictures a naughty boy horsed on the back of another, and being soundly spanked in the approved old English way. With his left hand the teacher points approvingly to the little Saint who, with book in hand, stands an interested spectator, upon his face an expression of the most smug, exasperating, self-conscious righteousness I ever saw. If boys haven’t changed, and this picture is a true tale, it is safe to say that the little sinner under the rod smashed the Saint’s face for him, the first chance he got. This series of frescoes is said by competent authority to be worth coming from Amer ica to see. And maybe so, but for me infinitely more worth while is the wonderful picturesqueness of the town itself.
There is one place in particular that makes a picture of extreme beauty. At the foot of a hill two ways meet, and one gives a glimpse of open country, and one of mysterious steps and the old city gate with the tall towers beyond. For strange effects of light and shade, for wonderful composition of form, and for soft coloring, I know of nothing like it.
There are other towns in Italy that are, perhaps, more beautiful-Amalfi, for example-and Bellagio, but beauty is one thing, and picturesqueness another and, sometimes, a different thing, and though they often are found together, they are entirely independent elements of a landscape or a city. And for complete and perfect picturesqueness I do not believe a town can be found in all Italy that is the equal of San Gimignano.